David Brooks’ Friday column consists of a rather melancholic “what might have been,” an “Alternate History” in which the Democrats under Obama’s leadership put up “No Quick Fixes” signs all around the White House, and “define themselves as the economic Back to Basics Party.”
In Brooks’ 2009, the Obamacrats begin by enacting a stimulus bill that’s significantly bipartisan in concept – heavy on payroll tax relief, light to the vanishing point on traditional Democrat government-centric spending programs. They then choose to “do energy first” rather than health care reform, a decision that enables them to spend the Summer of 2009 “talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains,” and expanding upon the “strategy for a century of growth.” It leads eventually to this:
Americans didn’t like all of it. But this wasn’t conventional big government liberalism. The Democrats seemed to be a serious party attending to serious things. When November 2010 rolled around, the unemployment rate was still high, but Democratic leaders had prepared voters for that. In the meantime, America was rebuilding its core, strengthening itself for better days ahead.
We can disagree with some or all of Brooks’ prescriptions, and still acknowledge that the centrist, long-term, self-consciously grown-up approach he recommends might have served the Democrats politically much better than what they actually did. To say the least, that’s a low bar. It also shifts the blame entirely to the Democrats for not living up to Brooks’ expectations.
Beginning with Brooks’ main suggestion, we can ask if there is really any good reason to believe that, if the Democrats had chosen to “do energy first,” conservatives wouldn’t have been fully prepared to attack whatever they produced, from top to bottom and in detail, along much the same lines that they (we) attacked Obamacare. Undoubtedly, a new energy policy would have included a heavy climate change component, and would therefore have been subjected to an amplified version of the by now familiar “Climate Fraud” attack. Every aspect of green economics would have been criticized – as cost-ineffective, overly intrusive, counterproductive – all in all a pie-in-the-sky distraction from the “real” problems besetting the American economy. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, and eventually John McCain, too, would likely have depicted the Democrats’ “strategy for a century of growth” as a plan to “fundamentally transform” America into a socialist Hell…
…and by now David Brooks might be wondering why Obama wasted so much of his political capital on unpopular, pointless, controversial, compromised, irrelevant, and incoherent energy legislation, missing the historical opportunity to pass bipartisan health care reform that would have addressed competitivity issues and long-term budgetary pressures, delivered palpable relief to distressed citizens and businesses, and fulfilled a major campaign promise – thus convincing the public that the Democrats were a serious party determined to do serious things.
Or maybe he’d find something else they could have done rather than whatever they did. The point is that the real question cannot be merely, “Why weren’t the Democrats much smarter and wiser – or at least as smart and wise as David Brooks?” Why weren’t we, why aren’t we, able to produce, embrace, and implement a coherent national strategy that at least appears wise, and for longer than it takes to read and think over a Friday column in the New York Times? Obama and his party would have to have set out to alter the terms of our national discourse, but, as much a shock as 2008 was, as wearing as the ongoing economic crisis has been, it has not yet shaken us out of our accustomed ways of doing and perceiving things. We are still the same people we were before 2008, going about our lives and discussing and pursuing policy options in essentially the same way and on the same terms as in 2007, and, with minor adjustments, 1997, 1987, and even 1977.
It would take a more definitive and comprehensive self-rejection and will to self-re-creation to make Brooks’ politics, whatever its specific content, possible.